Vice President Kamala Harris on Tuesday opened the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington by spotlighting Africa’s youthful population — making the case that the continent’s demographics will inevitably lead it to become a key global player in the decades to come.
Harris offered the optimistic thread at the start of the Biden administration’s three-day gathering that’s bringing in leaders from 49 African nations and the African Union for high-level talks. The vice president also announced that the administration would invest an additional $100 million to expand the Young African Leaders Initiative and that the U.S. Export-Import Bank was entering new memorandums of understanding that will clear the way for $1 billion in new commercial financing in Africa.
The vice president’s appearance at the forum was one in a series of events designed to showcase U.S. interest in and commitment to Africa after years of what some officials have lamented was a lack of involvement in the continent that has increasingly become a battleground for global influence between the U.S. and China.
President Joe Biden, who is set to meet leaders on Wednesday, signed an executive order establishing the President’s Advisory Council on African Diaspora Engagement. The African diaspora includes nearly 2 million African immigrants as well as many African American descendants of enslaved people who have close connections to the continent.
About 60% of Africa’s population is under 25, and the young population is to grow to 80% by 2050, which Harris said makes increased focus on the continent necessary.
“This represents an enormous potential for the world in terms of economic growth, and for social and political progress,” Harris told a young leaders forum. “I strongly believe that the creativity and ingenuity of Africa’s young leaders will help shape the future. And that their ideas, your ideas, innovation and initiatives will benefit the entire world.”
Even before the summit began, the White House announced Biden’s support for the African Union becoming a permanent member of the Group of 20 nations and said it had appointed Johnnie Carson, a well-regarded veteran diplomat with decades of experience on the continent, to serve as point person for implementing initiatives.
And, Biden is expected to announce before the end of the summit that he will make a multi-country visit to Africa next year, according to a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity before the announcement of the trip.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Tuesday met with the presidents of Djibouti, Niger and Somalia. Blinken and Austin also held talks with the president of Angola, whose oil-rich country has been a major recipient of Chinese investment in recent years and has toyed with allowing China to open a naval base.
The meeting with Somalian President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud came as a United Nations report published Tuesday showed that several parts of Somalia are at risk of famine in the coming months.
Djibouti is home to a major U.S. military base as well as a Chinese military facility and both Niger and Somalia have been epicenters of terrorist activity from the Boko Haram, al-Shabab and other Islamic State affiliated groups as well as American efforts to combat it.
“We simply want to use this morning to continue building on the close partnership that we have to discuss in particular security cooperation and other shared priorities, including climate, health, education, food security,” Blinken said.
“We’re grateful for all of your countries’ robust cooperation with the United States,” Austin said, noting that Djibouti hosts the U.S. base Camp Lemonier. “Our partnerships contribute directly to many of the key goals in our National Defense Strategy, including defending our country, deterring aggression, and combating violent extremism.”
The administration is hosting leaders and senior officials this week in a not-so-subtle pitch to compete with China on the continent. The aim is to convince its guests that the U.S. offers a better option to African partners.
The continent, whose leaders often feel they’ve been given short shrift by leading economies, remains crucial to global powers because of its rapidly growing population, significant natural resources and sizable voting bloc in the United Nations.
Africa remains of great strategic importance as the U.S. recalibrates its foreign policy with greater focus on China — what the Biden administration sees as the United States’ most significant economic and military adversary.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan on Monday said the administration would commit to spending $55 billion in Africa over the the next three years on “a wide range of sectors to tackle the core challenges of our time.”